Why build a cheap camera stabilizer?Camera stabilizers are attachments used to capture smooth looking video even when the camera and camera operator are in motion. The camera operator may walk (or even jog), move through tight hallways and doorways, and even climb up and down stairs without shaking the camera. Unfortunately, professional camera stabilizers cost around $1500. Even the cheap 3rd party ones cost $600+. Not exactly a bargain considering many of us use cameras in that price range. So, I decided to make my own version. It turns out, it only costs $14. Not too bad. And I'll show you
how to build your own right here. Whether you are an aspiring filmmaker, a videographer, the family documentarian, or just want more utility out of your video camera, you'll appreciate a camera stabilizer.
If you know what you are doing, you can probably build one of these in about 20 minutes. It might take you an hour if you have to read this web page while you do it and aren't very good with tools .
This camera stabilizer design works with anything that has a tripod mount and should be fine with cameras that weigh less than 5 pounds. For heavier cameras, I would recommend building a large sled for better support and easier mounting or considering adding a professional tripod head . If you make it out of steel or iron as I recommend, you will have to worry more about the solidity of your camera than the solidity of the camera stabilizer. But before we begin, I should warn you that improper or irresponsible use of a camera stabilizer can quickly result in damage to your equipment and/or injury to yourself and others.
The main tools you'll need to get
your hands on are a drill and a stationary vise. It's possible to do it
without the vise, but it's far more difficult and potentially dangerous.
You can buy a vise for about $15 from Home Depot or Lowes and it's well worth the money
if you are going to do any future projects. It's meant to be table
mounted, but I just bolted it to a big board that I can stand on while I
use it. Mounting it is important. I tried doing this once without mounting
it (didn't have spare board at the time) . It was a p-a-i-n.
You'll need drill and a 1/4" drill
bit that can go into galvanized steel. So, cheap wood bits will probably
not survive this project. This happens to be a very nice drill in this
picture, but any power drill will do.
You also need a wrench, screwdriver
(type depends on the bolts you get), and a hammer. I had a little combo
thingy I got from the dollar store. It actually works pretty well because
the wrench part is a little bit clawed, so it grips pipes really nicely.
First you'll need three pipes. I like to use 1/2" galvanized steel or black iron.
It's strong, threaded at the ends, and a comfortable thickness. You can
use any length pipes you like, but this project uses three 10" pipes (about $1.50 each).
End caps You'll also need three end caps. You can get away with just two, but
the last one is used to cover up those nasty sharp threads on the end of
the pipes. I've gotten cuts while building these things by accidentally
grabbing the threads too hard . These are about 80 cents a piece. Make
sure they fit the pipes, 1/2" diameter.
Tee Basic T-joint. Again, make sure it fits the pipes. If your standard hardware store doesn't
have this, you can try a plumbing store. About
Weight This is just a simple barbell weight from a sports store. The one shown
in the picture is 2.5 pounds, but you can buy any weight you want. But,
anything heavier than 5 pounds starts getting too heavy to carry around.
Get a weight that has a 1" diameter hole. These are about
Other small parts Here's a break down of what you'll need:
A - two 1-1/2" 1/4" machine bolts B - one 1/4" wing nut C - three
1-1/2" diameter flange washers for 1/4" bolts D - three lock washers
for 1/4" bolts. E - two 1/4" machine nuts.
All these together costs about two
dollars. You sometimes can find these for really cheap at a specialty hardware store. General hardware stores tend to
charge a lot for the specialty washers and nuts.
3 x $1.50 + 3 x $0.80 + $1.50 + $2.00 + $3.00 = $13.40 (yours will vary)
There you go. Can't get much cheaper than that!
This first step is pretty easy. Just
attach the tee and end cap to one of the pipes to form a basic handle.
Feel free to tighten these parts together as much as you like. I recommend
using the vise and a wrench. Don't use your hands, you'll just hurt
yourself and not get it tight enough.
Drilling the End Caps
Put one of the end caps in the vise as
shown. Then drill a 1/4" hole in the center of the cap. It's doesn't have
to be perfectly in the center, but the closer the better. You really want
to use the vise because you're drilling through a quarter inch of
galvanized steel. It's enough to bring weak drills to a dead stop and will
definitely do a number on your hand if you just try to hold it. Not
mention it can get hot. Protective eyeware such as safety goggles should AWLAYS be used when using any powertool! Also little bit of machine oil (or even vegetable oil) can make this easier as well as preserve your drill bit.
I like using a slow speed because when the bit comes out the other side
it'll jerk from grabbing onto the metal. It's far more pleasant to
have a slow jerk than to have the drill suddenly fly out of your hand.
Do this in a place that's easy to clean up. You'll make lots of metal
shards. Outside is where I did it. And don't use you fingers to wipe away
the shreds!!! They'll get in your skin. Use a brush, or blow the shards
away.Do this for two end caps.
The mounting requires the
parts in the picture on the left. Bolt, two lock washers, flange washer,
nut, wing nut, and a drilled end cap. Put a lock washer on the bolt and
the put it through the end cap with the bottom of the bolt coming out of
the top of the outside of the end cap like in the middle picture. Put
another lock washer on and then the nut. Put the end cap in the vise and
tighten with a wrench. The lock washer will keep the bolt from turning.
You'll want to make this really tight because this is where your camera
attaches. You want it tight not because it'll fall off or anything, but
because putting the camera on and taking it off requires lots of turning
action. If it loosens, the bolt will pivot around as will your camera
making hard it to keep still. If this happens while you're filming, you'll
have to stop and find a wrench. This schematic view may be a little clearer than the pictures.
Use a hammer to dent the center of the flange washer. You can do this
by putting the washer across the hole of the weight, putting the head of
the bolt on the hole, and hammer the bolt. You want to have the center
area of the washer higher than the rim. So when you attached the mount to
the camera, as shown in the right picture, the rim of the washer pushes up
against the area around the bolt. This washer will distribute the force
away from the single point of contact. So, the wider the washer the
better. If you don't use the washer, the camera will shake a lot right at
this connection as well as putting a great deal of stress on this one tiny
spot that could damage your camera. So if you lose this washer, I don't
recommend using this stabilizer without it.
Use your fingers to tighten the wing nut on the mounting. DO NOT use a
wrench. You may risk stripping the threads on your camera or breaking the
tripod mount. Both are equally bad.
You'll need the barbell weight and the parts shown in the pictures
below. They'll go together in the pattern shown in the next picture. The
bolt goes through two washers that sandwich the weight. Then stick on the
end cap, put on the lock washer, and then finally the nut. Hand tighten
the parts until they are snug. This schematic view may be a little clearer than the pictures.
The lock washer deep inside the end cap will keep a grip on the nut.
So, you don't have to stick pliers down there to turn it. Just turn the
cap. Stick the cap in the vise shown on the bottom left. Then you can use
the screwdriver to tighten the bolt, or just grab the weight and turn it.
The weight should turn the bolt, and the vise will keep the cap from
I like to tighten it until the outer washer starts to bend inwards.
This reduces the amount the bolt sticks out - good for when you want to
put it down on the base. If you do use the base as stand (not highly
recommended because it's easy to knock over), you can buy rounded bolts
and little rubber feet. These will make a much nicer base that won't
wobble. You can tell I like to do this and I say it easy to knock over
from experience. My camera still seems to work okay, though.
Lastly, take the remaining two pipes, screw them into the T joint of
the handle, and attached the base and the mounting. And your done! You can
tighten these parts as much as you'd like. Either give them a good hand
tightening or the full fledged vise and wrench tightening. The only reason
not to do the vise-wrench tighten is if you want to be able to collapse
this or swap components. You can vary the pipe lengths and barbell weight
however you like.
I would probably refer to this combination as the sport model. Mostly
because it's balance point (with camera) is near the T-joint and can be
spun around by the handle pretty well. It's really agile. Longer bars and
heavier weights change the handling.
When you store it without the camera, the mounting washer is left
hanging on the end. I recommend taking off the wing nut, putting on
the washer, and then screwing the wing nut back on. That will help keep it
from getting lost.
The side handle is used to stabilize side-to-side rocking. The vertical
shaking is pretty much dampened by the weight. You may hold it however
you'd like. The way I like holding it is shown in the picture. How you use
it is 80% of the smoothness. This even is true for the professional stuff
with all the fancy shocks and hydraulics. Don't expect this thing to
perform miracles, you have to practice using your arms and body to create
a smooth motion. Watch your hands while you walk, and see how level you
can keep them relative to the ground. Watching the shadow of your hands on a sunny say is an easy way to isolate thier movement. Keep your legs bent and learn how to
"glide". I talked with someone who has used professional stabilizers and
they said this was, "really, just as good." Getting good results is not so
much about the equipment, but how you use it. That's really true about
WARNING: Improper or irresponsible use of a camera stabilizer can quickly result in the destruction of your equipment and/or injury to yourself and others. Be careful, watch where you are going, pay attention to where you are swinging your camera, and just try not to do anything stupid for your own sake.
Here is some example footage of the camera stabilizer in use.
These are for educational and demonstration purposes only. If you really enjoy the music used in these clips, I encourage you to support the artists by purchasing thier recordings. NOTE:
These samples, as well as all of my own films, were captured with a $300
Sony Digital 8 Camcorder (the cheapest digital camcorder you can buy).
Sprinting down a hallway with camera about 3-6 inches from the ground. Uses the inverting bracket to position the camera near the ground. The vertical motion is clean, even around the turn and up the ramp. There is a little side-to-side motion because I was only using one hand and not using the side handle. I did this run cold without any practice. You should really practice a scene a few times and get used to what you'll have to do before you try to record it.
Squash player practicing. The reason she is hitting
softly is because she would probably kill me otherwise.
:) Lots of circular panning around a moving
subject. Uses inverting bracket to dramatize viewing
angle. Music Credit: YoYo Ma [amazon.com]
Tracking fast moving/running subjects playing
soccer. This involves running along side and around
a soccer player during practice. The camera stabilizer and the inverting
bracket are the only pieces of equipment used. Also demonstrates
some of the dangers of field recording in active
environments. Music Credit: Squirrel Nut Zippers [amazon.com]
Tracking a subject walking through various
environments. Fairly complex camera control, some
not acheivable with many commerical stablizers. Rising from ground
level to shoulder level while in motion, steep camera pitching,
stair navigation, circular panning around subject while ascending a
stairwell. Music Credit: Take Care of My Cat
A two camera view of a hallway walk through scene at a radio station. The top view is from a camera using a Poor Man's camera stabilizer. The bottom view is an observer camera watching me use the camera stabilizer. The bottom camera is partially stabilized using a tripod with its legs folded together. You can see the difference in quality of stabilization, particularly in the stationary moments and the tripod also makes a "clacking" sound you can hear in the recording when we move. This is from the loose legs hitting each other. Tripods can help a little to stabilize moving shots, but they have a lot of shortcomings.
These are some additional
things you might want to consider making because they make the stabilizer
more versatile. Click on the images to enlarge.
One of the bad things about the camera stabilizer by itself is that it
makes it very difficult to get low angle shots such as those hovering just above the floor
or looking up at a person. To fix this, you can
build a U-shaped inverting bracket that wraps around the camera allowing
it to be attached on the top rather than the bottom. Click on the picture to the left to enlarge.
buy the aluminum bar at most hardware stores, cut it to length with a hacksaw, drill the
holes, and bend it using the vise. Make sure the top hole is exactly above
the bottom hole, otherwise it becomes off balance. Use a ruler to make
measurements. You'll lose about 1/8" of an inch in the bend so be careful
and account for that. It's also much easier to get a controlled bend if
you make a little notch with the hacksaw on the inside where each bend
Alternative weight and bar length Here I used a 24" tube at the bottom and a 5 pound weight. This reduces vertical vibration producing smoother walking shots. But the overall rig gets heavier and tilting the
camera becomes much harder because the center of gravity is now well below the handle. If
you want more agility, use the sport version with all 10" bars and the
2-1/2 pound weight. Having a variety of lengths and weights is a reason
you may not want to tighten everything with a wrench. Hand tightening
is usually good enough to keep everything together. You can see this version is pretty tall. Using the inverting bracket, you can get nice near ground video like the sample videos above.
Feedback and Comments
Over the years I've gotten a fair amount of email from people thanking me for putting up this tutorial eager to share thier experiences. I'm not able to acknowledge every single one of them, but I have gathered a few and put them up here if you would like read them..
I've also gotten many emails that I would place in the question/criticsm category from people either wanting feedback on thier own design descisions or outright bashing on this particular design. If you are an amateur physicist, or even a mechanical engineer ready to write me an email criticizing my design or asking a specific question about your own personal design, please read the Advance Stabilizer Discussion first. There's a good chance you'll find what you are looking for. Thanks!.
"Can I pay you to build one for me?"
I get this question a lot because many people don't have the resources or skills to build one of these themselves. So by popular demand, I now sell them through this website [littlegreatideas.com]. There you can find information about the ready-to-use kits that I have available and how to purchase them. Thanks a bunch!
Copyright 2000-2010, Johnny Chung Lee
If you enjoyed this project, please consider showing your appreciation and support by purchasing a kit. Thanks!